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Ingredients v. Technique


Jinmyo
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Fat Guy  Posted: Dec 21 2002, 12:25 AM

Okay, the thread is called something like "Ingredients v. Technique" with a subtitle of something like "Must one dominate the other?" The first post says something like, "Fat Guy said to start this thread. Please discuss." Then tomorrow I can add it to Hot Topics in order to trick everybody into posting there.

"Fat Guy said to start this thread. Please discuss."

Edited by Jinmyo (log)

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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I'm an ingredients guy myself, with just a side of technique. Off to Borough now.

Edit: Jin, what time is it over there? Don't you sleep?

Kiku, it's now 5:45 a.m. and I've been up for a few hours.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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Of course one need not dominate the other. And of course the product of good technique will improve when good ingredients are used.

But there is a school that says that ingredients are not that important, as long as you know the right techniques with which to doctor them.

Julia Child promulgated this view, and it earned her the Hesses’ wrath in The Taste of America. To Julia's credit she was writing for Americans in 1961, when good ingredients were scarce. In her energetic way, she wanted to convince everyone to get into the kitchen and try cooking French. But, back then at least, she was very clear that technique dominated. From the foreword to volume 1 of Mastering the Art of French Cooking:

No out-of-the ordinary ingredients are called for. In fact the book could well be titled “French Cooking from the American Supermarket,” for the excellence of French cooking, and of good cooking in general, is due more to cooking techniques than to anything else.

The first substantive chapter concerns kitchen equipment. There is then a brief section on ingredients, noting that except for possibly foie gras and truffles, all the foods called for were available in the average American grocery store. American salted butter and French butter were deemed interchangeable in cooking. Wisconsin “Swiss” could be substituted for Gruyère and Emmenthal, Philadelphia cream cheese for Petit Suisse. If you can’t find shallots, mince onions and then drop them in boiling water. And so on.

Another example from Julia’s expositions of soupe au pistou and fish soups:

The pistou itself, like the Italian pesta [sic] is a sauce made of garlic, basil and cheese … this soup is not confined to summer and fresh vegetables, for you can use canned navy beans or kidney beans, fresh or frozen string beans, and a fragrant dried basil. … you can make an extremely good fish soup even if you have only frozen fish and canned clam juice to work with because the other essential flavorings of tomatoes, onions or leeks, garlic, herbs [dried] and olive oil are always available.

My point is not to attack Julia Child, to whom many of us owe a debt of gratitude. And my guess is that in her later work, Julia emphasised fresh and good ingredients more than she did in 1961. But a lot of cookery technique is about transforming or disguising bad ingredients, through sauces and other treatments. When I first learned to cook, the things I was most interested in finding were kitchen tools and cookbooks. My gastronomic trips to New York took me straight to Bridge Kitchenware, not to the farmers’ markets (if they existed back then).

Something new seemed to happen in the US, roughly 20 years later. Alice Waters may not have been the only proponent of the school that said, “start with great ingredients and then decide what to do with them,” but she had a lot of influence. I certainly recall a shift from starting with a recipe to planning the meal based on what seemed good in the markets on the day. A first cooking trip to Paris in the early 1980s pushed me further in this direction.

An extreme position in this direction turns up in the River Café cookbooks : for certain dishes and sauces, the salt must be Maldon sea salt, the vegetables and fish exquisitely fresh. Sourcing (Chez Panisse’s ‘forager’, for example) becomes as important as kitchen technique, and Alice Waters gets reproached by a chef from another restaurant, “that’s not cooking, it’s shopping.” Precisely, say the ingredientologists.

It would be interesting to understand just how modern this ingredient-focused view is in Europe, and in particular in France. The aphorism I have used as a signature (roughly, “great cooking happens when the ingredients taste like themselves”) is from Curnonsky (Maurice Edmond Sailland) who lived from 1872 to 1956, and who had a lot to do with the “discovery” of provincial restaurants and cookery. Edouard de Pomiane (1875-1964) followed in this school, and influenced Elizabeth David with his emphasis on simpler treatments of excellent ingredients – e.g. his recipe for tomates à la crème. And David, of course, had a deep influence on Alice Waters.

My guess is that these days we would be surprised if a chef or food writer wrote as Julia Child did above. The Waters/River Café/David perspective is the more common. But which goes back further?

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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JD, excellent points, very well made.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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JD: yes, this makes sense. I'm very much Waters/River Café school myself. Of course, it's more suited to a culture in which it's increasingly possible to get high-quality ingredients (just got back from Borough), whereas time doesn't necessarily allow amateurs to refine complicated techniques. But I find that even my memories of my favourite dishes, eaten out, turn out to be biased towards simple preparations that let through extraordinary ingredients. I'm not a big sauce person; nor can I really recreate in my mind, say, the cappucino fish thingy whatsits I had back at Ramsay's Aubergine. What I remember are things like branzino al sale, good sushi, that amazing acorn-fed pork at Eyre Bros. earlier this year.

Odd, then, that of all the restaurants in the world, the one I've not been to and would most like to visit is El Bulli.

Jin, is your early rising connected to the need for good ingredients?

Edit note: I realise it takes years to train as a sushi chef. But surely the ingredients are paramount.

Edited by Kikujiro (log)
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Jin, is your early rising connected to the need for good ingredients?

One could say that.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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Compliments to JD(London) for a patient and thoughtful post, and for the motivation to get Julia off the shelf for some interesting quotations.

I don't see an "attempted division of the culinary world" so much as a sliding scale on which technique will be emphasized more in response to economic and social demands and status of diners. (CP might be seen as a counter-trend, or backlash.) This doesn't mean that challenging technique is not present in simple-seeming preparations, or that simplicity does not find its way into the Grand Restaurant.

For my money, it's worth investigating both. Inevitably, though, one forms preferences, which are different than exclusions.

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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There seems to be, in much eGullet discussion and also in food writing and discussion at large, a presumed dichotomy between restaurants that emphasize "the finest ingredients simply prepared" and those that emphasize "dazzling technique." That distinction rests on implicit assumptions that I think are false in today's restaurant market.

First, the top restaurants in any given region are typically all getting the same ingredients from the same suppliers. It doesn't matter whether they serve the scallops simply roasted or with a strongly flavored sauce. They're still the same scallops. Occasionally you get a restaurant like Craft where the ingredients-purchasing operates a few percent above what the other top places in the market are doing, but that tends just to be a question of price -- Ducasse gets all those ingredients too, and some better -- and doesn't have any general applicability because there are only a handful of restaurants in America pursuing that program.

Second, the implicit assumption that fancy technique is somehow a cover for worse ingredients just doesn't ring true. In fact I can't think of any example of a restaurant that uses fancy technique to cover up bad ingredients. If you go down the list of the best restaurants in any city, for the most part you'll see that complex technique goes hand in hand with the best product.

Third, there's an assumption that complex technique alters the flavor of food more than simple technique, and that's not always the case. Very often it is the complex approach that maximizes flavor, as when nouvelle cuisine chefs serve ingredient x with a sauce made from that ingredient, with a garnish flavored with that ingredient, with a sausage made from that ingredient ground up, etc.

Fourth, most restaurants where you can find examples of complex technique offer a variety of menu options many of which are firmly in the simple category. Rare is the restaurant like Union Pacific or Pierre Gagnaire where absolutely everything on the menu is a roller-coaster ride of flavor. Most places have a veal chop or whatever.

Fifth, most people have no clue about the technique behind what they're eating. So they assume that the cuisine at Gramercy Tavern is simple whereas the cuisine at some fancy French place is complex. Yet a purportedly simple dish at Gramercy Tavern may contain a dozen ingredients, have several garnishes that took days to make, and require as much labor and expertise to cook as a dish at some other restaurant that somehow strikes people as more complex even though any minimally trained chef could make it.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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"...it is, above all, necessary to have a sufficient quantity of the finest materials at one's disposal. Every cook knows this, and any master or mistress of a house who stints in this respect forfeits the right to make any remark whatsoever to the Chef concerning his work, for let the talents or merits of the latter be what they may, they are crippled by insufficient or inferior material. It is just as absurd to exact excellent cooking from a Chef whom one provides with defective or scanty goods, as to hope to obtain wine from a bottled dcoction of logwood."

A. Escoffier

FWIW

Nick

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Well you would be surprised if a chef wrote as Julia did because that is exactly what Ferran Adria says. Now there's a guy who gets the essence of corn from canned corn and admits it.

I actually think this point is a diversion of sorts in regards to the original question. Because I don't see how anyone can argue that the perfect combination of top quality ingredients and dazzling technique doesn't trump? But in fact people do and the entirety of the dispute is based on the fact that the Shonfeld side of the argument says, "waiter, hold the dazzling technique please."

The most profound statement anyone has recently made on the website came courtesy of Ed Schoenfeld in response to someone's question about comparing Chinese to French food. To paraphrase Ed, he said that the goal of French cuisine is to cook ingredients together until they make an entirely new flavor. To me that is the issue here. You have dazzling technique whose goal is to make an entirely new flavor, and who in order to do that spends lots of time manipulating textures. And then you have people who want the flavor of the perfect ingredient unadorned.

Personally I don't understand the latter argument when it comes to dining in restaurants. Not that it doesn't have its place as a complete philosophy. Dining at CP, or at Craft or at a top place in Italy is a great thing to do. But I find that style ultimately limiting and less interesting when compared to cooking techniques that express a greater extension of the human aspect of dining. I mean I can eat a slice of the world's best canteloupe in my home. Why do I have to go to a restaurant to eat it and pay those prices?

That brings us, I think, to where the dividing line is on this issue and probably governs where on the continuum each of us falls on this question. I think you have egalitarian on one side (CP, Slow Food etc.) where the philosophy is that the ingredient takes precedence over the person preparing it, and those who are more interested in the experience of individual expression and how it affects the ingredients. And if we were to take a test similar to the political compass test people are taking on that other thread, how much intervention people preferred would be the determining factor. Because I think people like Shonfeld would be way out on one side of the graph, people who say that getting the essence of corn from a can being on the other, and then most of the other people who would be considered moderates on the issue as they are looking for some good combination of the two. And I think a good example of this point is the difference in the way they prepare vegetables at Craft as opposed to Arpege. At Arpege even though they spin it as "non-interventionist cooking," the personality of the chef is evident in every dish. At Craft, despite how marvelous the veggies can be, there isn't a house signature in the way the food is prepared. And while personally I love that style, I would choose Arpege as being "better" because the demonstration of Passard's personality is a unique and intangeable element that is at the heart of why I enjoy fine dining.

Edited by Steve Plotnicki (log)
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The most profound statement anyone has recently made on the website came courtesy of Ed Schoenfeld in response to someone's question about comparing Chinese to French food. To paraphrase Ed, he said that the goal of French cuisine is to cook ingredients together until they make an entirely new flavor.

Perhaps a *truer* flavor, Steve. Although that could be seen as new.

Nick

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This may be the closest thing to consensus I've ever seen on eGullet. :biggrin:

It's the dynamic between ingredient and technique that matters. As JD expressed so well, the historical perspective is key. Julia stressed technique because ingredients in the US were mediocre then. Alice Waters rebalanced the equation, tapping into a growing discontent with plastic pink tomatoes and battery chickens, especially among people who had experienced the cuisines of France, Italy and elsewhere.

What a luxury that we can have both!

I don't have time to post excerpts now but Richard Olney's preface to 'Simple French Food' is an extremely articulate, well-reasoned discussion of this question.

Okay, a quickie:

"'La cuisine! That's when things taste like themselves.' [Curnonsky] This is none other than the artist's precept, 'Respect your medium,' transposed into the world of food. No more, it says, should a leg of lamb be altered to imitate venison than clay should be made to imitate marble, the quality of the basic material being, in each instance, destroyed while the noble material, insolently imitated, remains aloof.

"Defined as 'pure in effect,' not only rustic cooking but also classical French cooking, with its refined methods and subtle harmonies, must insofar as its integrity remains unmarred by sophisticaton, be admitted as well to the fold of simple food. "

Continue, please.

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I'd just add that for cooking and eating at home, it's still not that easy to obtain good ingredients. I spent several hours the other day searching for a decent brand of polenta that wasn't instant-cook or in an already cooked log. Trying to find non-ultrahomogenized heavy cream has become a project, even in so-called "health food" stores.

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Don't you like the way you've been marginalized?  :cool:

I wouldn't say there is no need for this thread. But from the way I posited it, I am waiting for you (or anyone else for that matter) to rebut my proffer that a combination of the two wins.

The company, and the view, are good from where I sit, Steve. I chose them a long time ago and I've never regretted it. I wouldn't call it the margin, though, but you may if you wish for effect. No offense taken.

More to the point right now, I should say (again, I think) that a combination of the two makes the most sense and is the most true. A couple of posts above I said, "This doesn't mean that challenging technique is not present in simple-seeming preparations, or that simplicity does not find its way into the Grand Restaurant. " Extremism never endures.

I also appreciate the FG's five point analysis as valid, but I don't see the locus of the "presumed dichotomy".

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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Surely, historically, you can divide certain traditional dishes into those designed to make the best of very fresh ingredients while they're available, and those designed to cleverly compensate for the need to use less ideal and/or preserved ones?

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It's the dynamic between ingredient and technique that matters.

But I thought the dispute was about something else. The Shonfeld side says leave my ingredients alone. I am interested in technique only to the extent that it evokes the natural quality of the ingredients. And once you apply more technique then necessary, it's no good because it detracts from the ingredients. The other argument is that a restaurant that practices this style of cuisine, by nature, can't be considered the "best restaurant" and that "dazzling technique" is necessary for that honor. So I'm not sure that the Shonfeld side would agree there is a continuum at all. Because by nature, once you accept the dynamic argument, you have admitted the ingredients argument is deficient. That argument lives and dies by resting solely on the quality of the ingredients combined with the near anonymity of the chef who prepares them.

Edited by Steve Plotnicki (log)
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Robert S - I didn't see your last post until after I posted my last post. So the question is, at what point along the continuum of technique applied does the ingredient side of the argument believe the application of technique shoud end?

Cathy L - Do you really think that Alice Waters improved on Julia by going to better quality ingredients? I thought the rap against her is that when she went to better quality ingredients, she discarded technique in their favor. Nobody would be questioning whether CP is the top restaurant in the country if she cooked those ingredients like Ducasse or Passard.

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We'll find a dispute here yet. Then it's going to get ugly!

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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We'll find a dispute here yet. Then it's going to get ugly!

That's a hideous hat.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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